Innovation Ecosystem

Guardians of the galaxy in RI

An interview with Steve Ahlquist from Uprise RI and Bill Bartholomew from BTown Podcast

Photo by Richard Asinof

Steve Ahlquist, left, and Bill Bartholomew.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/19/21
A conversation with Bill Bartholomew and Steve Ahlquist, two disruptors of the status quo in the news business.
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PROVIDENCE – Reporters often find themselves in the position of serving as superheroes, arriving on the breaking news scene as coifed Clark Kents and Lois Lanes, ready to explain and translate and narrate the changing world to us all as it spins faster and faster.

What gets lost – often left out and discounted – are the voices of the people who the news is actually happening to. Everything is translated and Twitter-ized into bite-sized anxiety and mayhem-inducing nuggets.

Here in Rhode Island, we are fortunate to have two “guardians of the galaxy” – disruptors of the media status quo, appearing as scruffy and feisty as “Rocket Raccoon,” the Marvel character.

Bill Bartholomew, host of the BTOWN podcast, and Steve Ahlquist, the driving force behind Uprise RI, have proven to be the true guardians of the people’s voices and stories in Rhode Island, allowing them to speak for themselves – and challenging elected officials to answer questions that many would prefer to duck.

They are, along with WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, some of the hardest working journalists in Rhode Island. They capture Rhode Islanders’ voices that are often left out of the conversation.

How do they perceive their role in what they do? ConvergenceRI recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Bartholomew and Ahlquist. Here is the ConvergenceRI interview:

ConvergenceRI: First of all, let me say it is an honor [laughter from both Ahlquist and Bartholomew] to be sitting down with you guys because you have thoroughly disrupted the news media in Rhode Island in a very positive way.

It has made all the difference in the world; you have forced other news media to do a better job covering Rhode Island.

You’ve been innovative in creating new voices, or perhaps more importantly, given voice to people who often have a hard time being heard.

As you do that, you are changing the dynamics and the power structure of the news media.

You both are indefatigable. You never seem to get tired.
BARTHOLOMEW: That’s debatable.

ConvergenceRI: You keep forcing people to pay attention to things that they don’t want to pay attention to.
Bill, your interview yesterday about the Rise of the Moors; Steve, your work on Wyatt Detention Center, and also your work on EFSB hearing, and your work on what happened with the police with the pepper spraying of children on Sayles Street…
BARTHOLOMEW: Yes, that was huge.

ConvergenceRI: I thought it be great to convene a conversation with both of you. I don’t know how much time you actually get to converse with each other…
AHLQUIST: About five minutes before and after certain press conferences, as much as I see Bill. I’ve been on his show once; t was great. But really, [to be able to] just sit down and compare notes, [it hasn’t happened].

ConvergenceRI: Then, let’s call this session, “Bill and Steve’s excellent adventure.”
BARTHOLOMEW: I have the right hat on for that.

ConvergenceRI: As we discussed walking out of the recent news conference at the State House, it’s hard to get people to go beyond the role of the news media being lap dogs, and say: Yes sir, Yes sir. And, challenging what’s going on in a way tells the story. How do you guys see your role?
AHLQUIST: My role is to find those voices that are not being heard and then giving them a platform.

Media in Rhode Island is very much a … politicians issue a press release and the press follows that press release and they give the politicians all the words.

I like to go to these events and find the people who are not – or I like to follow press releases that are not professionally written.

Right, in the early days, I remember PrYSM [Providence Youth Student Movement] would put out press releases and everyone would ignore them, because they were not following that precise, press release format. Some media thought: that’s not a real press release, because they didn’t know to include the three hash tags.

What does that even mean? It’s like made-up bullshit. I wanted to follow groups like PrYSM, because they have stories to tell. And that’s what I do what I do.

BARTHOLOMEW: I would agree with that. And, when I started doing this, it wasn’t even necessarily purely from a journalistic standpoint. It was almost partially from an entertainment standpoint, trying to transition out of doing music full time. Which brought me a lot of joy but also didn’t pay the bills. But, also frankly, didn’t fulfill me enough. There was always, even when I was in New York, I would always be going to events, in an observational capacity, or in an activist capacity, hanging out at cafes, talking with people from all over the world about different ideas, going to watch a Tim Russert-moderated affair or something like that, all these types of things.

That was always in my blood. So when I began, it was almost a selfish thing. And, I didn’t think it would go anywhere Somewhere in the 2018 election I realized that what you [Steve[ were doing worked really well.

And, it was reaching people outside the typical audience of news media. And, there was room for, essentially, a radio version of that. And that’s not to knock anything, WPRO or The Public’s Radio, but I felt that there was big audience that wasn’t being served with a radio show, that could tell stories, kind of drawing on my background as a referee, more calling balls and strikes than advocating for a left or right or center position.

But, I just saw the opening, and I wanted to seize the moment. And, I know a lot of other people who are doing podcasts, some of them I listen to every week, some of them I haven’t even clicked on yet. But I feel like you are going to see more and more podcasts and digital media trying to catch up on social media, with everything you really started, and frankly, even though I’m not necessarily waving the flag of GoLocal, at least they were out there, at one point, doing that.

AHLQUIST: I agree. I mean, I have differences, obviously, with the way that GoLocal does things, or covers certain things, but I think they’ve broken important stories.

And, I think, GoLocal has a place. I’m not thrilled with some of the stories they break.
I think some of it is very, you know, like [former Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s son got drunk at party, it’s like, well, sorry, teenagers are doing that, and if he wasn’t Chafee’s son, well, it would just be a very small story.

It happens all the time. It’s just a police blotter story. And, to try and embarrass the Governor, because his son acted like a teenager, is ridiculous.

But, beyond that, I think they do some pretty good work. Not all the time, but sometimes.

ConvergenceRI: It shows that there is an opportunity to seize the opportunity and to do what’s not being done. And, in my opinion, you’ve done that., changed the way that questions get asked.
It’s still the fact that so much of the news media is still tightly controlled by corporate interests.
For example, you have the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce with its own e-newsletter that is putting out content, for example, advocating against tax hikes, alleging that they are going to hurt small businesses in Rhode Island.

BARTHOLOMEW: And, you see that in some of the local blogs as well. I won’t name names, because there are some that are really good at what they do, even if it’s purely entertainment, but there are some blogging platforms that I’ve seen that they take a position, say, anti -some small business tax, and then you look at the roster of advertisers, and you go, well, there supported all by small businesses and hotels so you can read into that very easily,

And, I think that is a huge thing about Uprise and BTown is that sure, there are sponsors, at the same time, there are clear lines drawn that don’t always go along clearly with what the sponsors interests would necessarily be.

AHLQUIST: At the basic level, there is truth and there are lies. And, the Providence Chamber actively lied in some of the things they say about small businesses and taxes and everything else.

This idea that rich people will flee [Rhode Island] if you raise taxes a small amount on incomes over $450,000, it’s just untrue. It’s been proven untrue. There is no evidence whatsoever [to support that].

In fact, right now, lower-income people are more in and out of the state all the time. That’s the highest [demographic] of people in and out of the state.

People are constantly fleeing the state because they’re lives are made difficult.

If you’re rich, and you own property, moving somewhere else and maintaining your property here or selling all those properties, that’s [expensive], compared to a small increase, of maybe $10,000 in a tax increase for a lot of these people, no one’s going to do that, that’s a lot of work.

And then, I’ll tell you this. Speaker Shekarchi, stands there and uses as an example, not a business that said they would move, but he left it open as to whether this insurance company on the border of Massachusetts might move, if we activate these taxes.

He didn’t even name the firm. It was literally the most unscientific, non-economic thing ever. Right? It was like, this guy told me he would consider moving if they raised taxes on him, and I’m calling bullshit.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that I wrestle with, I admit that sometimes I can be get pretty deep into the weeds, when it comes to health care, because there is nobody else really doing that in-depth reporting. But, what I’ve found is, the world is very siloed. I’ve found that people don’t read, they stay in their bubble.

I was wondering: How do you overcome the silos? How do you get people to talk about stuff [outside their day-to-day comfort zone]?
BARTHOLOMEW: I think there is a brand attachment as well. Oh, one of us is talking about this one thing. So, it must be relevant. And that’s an earned trust with a base of leaders, listeners, supporters of many stripes. It becomes a powerful thing that you can introduce.

Even an obscure issue like the Rise of the Moors. The guest I had on yesterday, Ray Watson, he didn’t take a position that was necessarily favored by anybody in terms of the discussion I was seeing, left and right, it was kind of a unique position, and now I’ve seen, in the last 24 hours on my Facebook group, some of the chatter switched from, Oh yeah, maybe this isn’t a racial issue, maybe this simply a bunch of guys with guns jumping out of trucks in the middle of the night.

On the right, maybe there are constitutional elements that I was thinking about in terms of guns doesn’t apply here, because they refused to identify themselves and ran off into the woods. You can kind of scope people to get into an issue because they buy into the platform, I think.

AHLQUIST: There are also times when you can overlap issues. I look at the press conference Friday morning about the Sayles Street incident. I asked questions of the Commissioner Paré about the use of pepper spray in a community that is one of the most impacted by asthma in the entire state if not all of New England.

Here is health care, environmental racism and policing and that was at the intersection of all three of those issues.

If you are using pepper spray, and Paré said, you can’t possibly know who has asthma and who doesn’t, and I’m thinking, that is exactly the point.

If you pepper spray a person, and that person goes into cardiac arrest, and they can’t breathe, and if you watch the videos, they waited for like 10 minutes for an ambulance to show up, for a rescue to show up, and nobody was helping that woman, you can hear her breathing, [gasping] on the ground, with her head on the front of her car, for like 10 minutes, it’s literally on the audio, and I’m thinking, this woman, at any point, could have gone into cardiac arrest, while she was stressed, attempting to breathe, and not one police officer is holding her hand,

That’s policing, but it’s also health care, it’s also environmental racism, because that community is hit by it.

These overlaps are everywhere, but we don’t always make those connections. Sen. Tiara Mack, she liked the story I did on the [EFSB] Energy Facility Siting Board and a hearing on the proposed Sea 3 expansion in the Port of Providence of its propane facilities. She pointed out that environmental racism is about racism, the fact that we’re dealing with building new propane facilities in the middle of a community like this. It’s not going to East Greenwich, it’s not going to the East Side, it’s not to Barrington.

ConvergenceRI: I did an interview with Rebecca Altman recently, a headlined it as a conversation with the next Rachel Carson.
ALHQUIST: Oh, wow. That is a big deal.

ConvergenceRI: She is based in Rhode Island, and she has written a series of brilliant pieces, tracing the history of plastics, and in particular, how it is related to the growth of the petrochemical industry.
She traces the origins of PFAs, she traces the origins of PCBs, she traces the corporate structure – and work that was done by Carbide, and the Union Carbide. Altman is an incredible researcher and writer; even though I did this big interview, probably this is the first time you guys are hearing about it
AHLQUIST: Right.

BATHOLOMEW: Yes.

ConvergenceRI: If I had one person that I would recommend that you interview, it would be Rebecca Altman.
AHLQUIST: My thing is I think you need to open it up more, let people discover it by accident.

If I click on it, I am there. That is all it is. I make all of my stuff free, for everybody, all the time, with as little between them and me as possible. Just give it away.

ConvergenceRI: There are some serious things happening in the health care world that are just not being covered. I could not get Gov. McKee to talk about what is happening with Medicaid; the whole scheme for the Reinvention of Medicaid is about to blow up.
BARTHOLOMEW: The Governor did not understand your question; that was what is going on. I do not want to be a jerk about this, but Gov. Raimondo understood the questions that were being asked of her, and she deliberately did not answer them and obfuscated.

Gov. McKee does not understand some of the questions that are being brought to him.

And so, he talks around them, or he directs his attention to questions that he understands, and answers that question to death.

AHLQUIST: Even yesterday, at the weekly news briefing, I asked him about the LEOBOR – the law enforcement officers bill of rights – and police body cams, and he brought up MOUs, and said, I thought I thought we were talking about body cams.

And I said, I do not know how you can create MOUs that go beyond LEOBOR.

If he does not understand how these are related, that is kind of an issue, right?

I do not want to put him down too hard here, because I know he has a new to the job, and there is a big learning curve. He is getting a lot of direction from his policy staff.
If he wins the next election, he will feel more secure and confident.

BARTHOLOMEW: I agree that there is this learning curve, and I think it is fair to say, you are jumping into something and as Lt. Govvernor, how much in lt. Governor do you get into the weeds on Medicaid or even body cams. But then you ask yourself: we have this weird office of Lt. Governor, that just kind of floats around, and they are trying to run it now, with Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, as this ticket, if you will, and they travel around. Would not it be appropriate for the Lt. Governor to be more prepared?

But maybe that role should be much more about studying policy and being a senior policy adviser and ready for your questions on Medicaid.

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